BBC Four, Monday 27 November at 10.00pm
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Writer: Richard Fell
Starring: Samuel West, Kate Ashfield, Shaun Parkes, Stuart Organ
With Doctor Who and its wayward children taking care of family-friendly SF on the big channels, BBC Four has been quietly keeping the flame burning for long-trousered sci-fi. Their Quatermass and A for Andromeda reheats were both boldly ambitious and managed to just about transcend their chip shop budget origins.
Random Quest is the latest heavyweight SF tale remounted for the channel. Based on the short story by John Wyndham (but also on the original adaptation for anthology show Out of the Unknown in 1969), this is again by Richard Fell, the guy who breathed life into the lungs of Bernard Quatermass.
It’s the classic parallel world story. Colin Tafford (Samuel West) is a scientist who’s knocked unconscious in a botched experiment. He wakes up in a parallel world where he finds himself married to Ottilie (Kate Ashfield). This Colin, though, is trapped in a problem marriage and is secretly banging the girl from the company that publishes his rubbish sci-fi books.
There are subtle differences in this world, and the bit where we get a glimpse into the wider world are the drama’s few moments where it has a bit of fun with the concept. So, courtesy of some News 24 snippets we get glimpses of President Condoleeza Rice and hear that our current Prime Minister is John Smith, who obviously survived that second heart attack in 1994.
Samuel West is impressive and understated as Colin, and Ashfield nails a mix of pissed-offness and love. Thankfully, the drama doesn’t get bogged down with the reasons why this accident occurred and goes light on the sci-fi nature of the set-up. As Colin wanders round this strange yet familiar world he seems to find something his other life lacked, as well as repairing the damage the other Colin had wreaked.
If we have a gripe, it’s just that Fell seems to have decided to stylise this parallel world so much that it sometimes feels like Colin’s been flung into the future. The production’s cool white lines and glassiness don’t hit home in the way a more conventional sense of realism would.
That said, Random Quest is probably the best of BBC Four’s line of grown up sci-fi. Intelligently adapted and stylishly directed, with a deftly chosen soundtrack, it’s probably one of the best dramas to come out of the digitals this year.
Reviewer: Steve O’Brien